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September 2005
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Katrina, the myth of the black rapist, and other assorted musings that people won’t want to read

Partly in response to American media coverage of Katrina, partly in response to some comments I’ve seen around, and partly because I’m having one of those days, I’m going to launch into yet another discussion of New Orleans. I’ve been trying not to talk about it because everyone’s already overwhelmed with news coverage, but I think that there are some things we can learn about the US and its current state of affairs by examining this event and how it has been taken up in the discoursive communities around us.

Yesterday, when the head of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) made his statement regarding the responsibility of the people who remained in New Orleans for their own situations, I know I was not alone in being stunned at the extent of his inability to perceive reality. Certainly, some people remained in New Orleans by choice…but many, many remained because they had no options. They are poor, and as the media in other countries are pointing out constantly, African American. This double whammy of American problems that we don’t like to truly face, poverty and racism, must be talked about if it is to ever improve.

The problem I have seen in American coverage of Katrina is that implicitly, these are being skirted. There’s already a panic in the south about what basically boils down to “all them there black men coming out and raping our [white, of course] women.” My title for this post was drawn from Angela Davis’s essay “Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist,” included in her book Women, Race, and Class. She memorably describes an unconscious white mentality that imagines African American men “marching, penises erect” to rape white women. From my reading, a similar thought appears to be pervading coverage–a similar, misplaced and sickeningly racist ideology.

If you read carefully, you will see that I in no way condone violence, and I finding the looting and the violence of person against person reprehensible. I have no doubt that rape is going on. However, I also am reading between the lines of what the American media is saying and not saying, and I am seeing sensationalism that is subtly (and at times, overtly) working to maintain a myth of African Americans as violent, cruel, and lawless. That’s ridiculous; think about it–who’s going to cause more economic destruction: looters or white people committing insurance fraud? And who are we going to demonize more? And that statement leads me to poverty.

Racism and poverty are so inextricably combined that it’s nearly impossible to discuss one without the other. One of my coworkers yesterday was looking at news photos, and he said “Notice that only black people are being shown looting? What are they saying? That white people don’t loot? White people don’t NEED to loot.” While there may be a few exceptions, what he said was true in a broad sense. For a country that is so “great,” such a “world leader,” we should not be seeing crushing poverty concentrated among minorities…and we should not be seeing such crushing poverty at all. The head of FEMA can’t see it, but the US has an ongoing emergency situation among the poor that has simply been exacerbated by Katrina.

So with that, I invite you to examine American media rhetoric closely; examine government statements closely; and then, when you’ve grasped the extent of the problem, start thinking about the broader problems that Katrina exposes so well. What are we going to do about racism? About poverty? It’s our turn now.

Financial Times: Poor, Old, and Black Stay Behind (Sept. 2, 5:07 PM EST)


Comment from Anonymous
Time: September 5, 2005, 6:39 pm

According to three british white women on the “richard and judy show” (a live show) in the UK [05/09/2005] the rapist was reported to be white, apparently when the national guardmens heard about the rape they decided to evacuate the girls to a nearby hospital.